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Code For America In Chicago: Open311 Will Be City's Next Big Tech Move (VIDEO)

First Posted: 01/31/2012 5:17 pm Updated: 01/31/2012 5:30 pm

CHICAGO -- On Monday, a team of web developers and designers descended upon Chicago with an ambitious goal: to make city government more efficient, transparent and connected with the city it serves.

Code for America (CFA), a nonprofit organization that connects coders, engineers and developers with city governments, started in 2009 and has since launched projects in Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Detroit and other cities across the country. John Tolva, Chicago's chief technology officer, said the CFA team's main mission will be to create "a glue" between the city's computer infrastructure and new Chicago-focused applications that can be submitted by tech-savvy residents. He called the individuals working under the CFA's city fellowship program the "cream of the crop."

Before heading to Chicago for his fellowship, Jesse Bounds helped develop Fluent, a news aggregator and reader for the iPhone. He told The Huffington Post that he became interested in service-based projects after years of working as a software engineer.

"It's nice to see your work get used by people," Bounds said. "In Chicago, we're going to focus on opening the communication channels between citizens and the city through the 311 system. There's a lot of potential and opportunity here to do something really interesting."

Bounds was referring to the Open311 initiative, which both the city and CFA hope can transform the way Chicagoans handle everything from pothole reports to garbage can requests. Bounds and his colleagues will work with Chicago 311 operators to learn the ins and outs of the current system and then "redefine and renovate" it with web-based technology. Both the CFA fellows and the city say the new system will increase government accountability and access for residents.

Daniel X. O'Neil, executive director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, wrote the CFA application for the city, and his group will be working with the CFA fellows throughout this process. He said the CFA team will create "a lot of reusable code," which can then be transformed into anything that imaginative Chicagoans can dream up. In Philadelphia, for example, developers using CFA infrastructure and available data were able to create MuralApp, a mobile site that locates murals and other public art around the city.

Aside from similar fun, local applications, Tolva hopes the Open311 system will eventually be used by the city to track everything from garbage pickup to residents' complaints.

"Many city dwellers are carrying around computers in their pockets," said Tolva. "[Residents will be able to use] geotagging -- just take a photo of the problem and that's your service request."

Tolva said those sending in a request or complaint through the Open311 system will then be able to follow where the city is in terms of handling their request or solving their problem. And aldermen will be able to access this information and easily track issues in their own wards.

"This is like Christmas in February," Tolva said of the opportunities presented by Code for America.

Already, the city has had success just inviting Chicagoans to pitch useful city applications and featuring those applications on its website. ChicagoShovels is one example of what a little data and a few clever individuals can accomplish. The website features PlowTracker, which allows residents to check which streets are being plowed during a snow storm -- and brought record traffic to the city's website, Tolva said -- and Adopt-a-Sidewalk, which helps elderly or disabled Chicagoans submit requests for shoveling assistance.

"Technically, anybody can start writing applications," Tolva said. "[Code for America] represents a different approach to technological development. It's open-sourced. It's agile. It's a cultural thing in some ways."

When the CFA team gets a back-end system up and running, Tolva and O'Neil said they have no doubt Chicagoans will hop on board. Residents have already been responsive to similar high-tech efforts. Using Chicago's Open Data Portal, residents have created dozens of applications. And when Mayor Rahm Emanuel was dealing with the city's budget woes, the city launched ChicagoBudget.org. The site allowed residents to submit their ideas for ways to save money and generate revenue.

"A lot of [budget ideas] came in," Tolva said. "Not by tech folks, but by ordinary Chicagoans. Our goal is to be the convener of people who have great ideas and skills. This is a new form of civic engagement. It's not picking up litter on your block, but it's no less valuable."

Learn more about Code for America and its city fellowship program here.

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